The Americans: Final Season Premiere Review

It’s finally getting to you after all these years. You’re amazing, but it is getting to you. – Philip Jennings

Last year, I told you what you likely already knew. Season 5 of The Americans was the series’ weakest, but it had to be, in order to set the stage for a jam packed, though truncated set of ten final episodes in 2018. We got through all of it, the highs and the lows, and we’ve now reached the final stage of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ exquisite period piece.

If you believe in “TL;DR,” here’s your quick takeaway. “Dead Hand” was a phenomenal hour of television. This was The Americans at its artistic best, but also at its most focused. In the same hour, we got a superb array of music, mixed with some of the best montage sequences in the history of the show, and a smorgasbord of meat to move the story along.

That opening sequence was fantastic, and featured “Don’t Dream Its Over” from Crowded House. Lead singer Neil Finn said this about the song’s meaning:

I wrote that on my brother’s piano. I’m not sure if I remember what the context was, exactly, but it was just about on the one hand feeling kind of lost, and on the other hand sort of urging myself on.

Pretty fitting I’d say, especially for Elizabeth Jennings.

As Philip walks the Washington D.C. streets and looks across the way at the movie theater, we see posters for Wall Street, Revenge of the Nerds II, and The Pick-Up Artist. What this reveals, before we hear about the upcoming Arms Summit, is that we’re in late 1987. A quick search will tell you the Nerds sequel his in the summer, Robert Downey Jr.’s rom-com hit in September, and Oliver Stone’s classic look at 80s greed released in December.

The Americans is always attentive to detail, so notice Wall Street is “Coming Soon” and the other two are currently showing at the theater, with The Pick-Up Artist in the center position, meaning it’s the most lucrative (recently released) of the three at that moment in time. One could easily read commentary into the choice of those three films, but I’m not going to do that here. I think it was done to set the time, although Wall Street fits the anti-capitalist Russian model well.

The actual Washington Arms Summit occurred between December 8-10, and that event appears to be the culmination of the entire series. As we open the season, it stands eight weeks away, so it’s fall of 1987. Elizabeth is deeply ingrained in spy craft for the KGB, but her husband is now managing the Dupont Circle Travel Agency and is indeed out of the game. Oleg Burov works for the Ministry of Transportation in Russia, has a one-year-old son, and a wife he loves. Paige is in college, but she’s now officially IN the game, and her brother Henry is at St. Edward’s Academy playing hockey and being popular.

After a season without many highlights, Weisberg and Fields wrote an episode filled to the brim with them. “Dead Hand” was almost overflowing with important moments and plot maneuvers. Elizabeth is stressed out beyond belief, not just from multiple assignments, but also from watching her daughter attempt to follow in her footsteps, to varying degrees of success. Was there any doubt whatsoever that Officer Hanley was going to die painfully for keeping Paige’s college ID in order to assure himself a date with her, or because she was made?

That was a nearly creepy scene, made more tense by the possibility that he didn’t trust her. That’s what you get though. You should have let her read that book, my man. Then you wouldn’t have taken a blade in the side of your neck.

Aside: Maybe if he’d known how she reacted to male dominance watching that Russian comedy with Claudia and her mother, he’d have left her be, and would still be breathing rather than bleeding out on a cold, empty D.C. sidewalk.

Oleg Burov is back in Washington, leaving behind a wife that believes the entire Russian government is delusional for the lives they lead, as well as his son, Sasha. What I immediately looked forward to when he stepped out of the taxi at the Potomac Inn is the reunion scene with Stan Beeman we’re sure to get before the series ends. Arkady Ivanovich arrives at Oleg’s flat and tells him he needs him, which incidentally is the same tactic Burov employs with Philip when the two meet in the D.C. park late in the episode. What Weisberg and Fields have done here is placed every key character back in the same orbit at the same point in time.

The Summit is the backdrop, and it’s the catalyst for every action we’re likely to see from this moment forward. It’s what sends Elizabeth to Mexico City to meet with an official from the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, which gets us to the title of the episode. “Dead Hand” is a contingency plan for the old guard that despises Gorbachev and the changes in the country. It’s a fully automated response that fires even if Russia and every one of its operatives are wiped out, and the fear is that Fyodor Nesterenko, a foreign ministry officer, is willing to trade it to the United States in exchange for Reagan’s Star Wars program. “This can’t happen,” the man explains.

Elizabeth, as she listens to the official, looks more and more comatose. It’s not that she’s exhausted, it’s that she knows the stakes here. If you need more evidence of how serious this conversation is, pay attention to the way music was used during the talk. As he continues to lay out the facts, Peter Gabriel gets louder and louder. It’s a numbing effect. We can hear the words, but it’s a cacophony that allows for us to recognize how taxing each second is on her.

Also, it would be instructive to discuss “We Do What We’re Told,” also known as “Milgram’s 37.” Peter Gabriel wrote the song to discuss the findings from the electroshock “punishments” and responses of Yale Professor Stanley Milgram’s subjects during his social experiments. In the scenarios, shocks were administered to those who answered questions incorrectly, although those pulling the switches or turning on the electricity were unaware the participants were actors and the shocks were hoaxes. They themselves were the actual people being studied and analyzed. The purpose was to see whether or not the subjects would deliver the shocks, despite the increases in discomfort and the apparent pain of the victims.

What Milgram found was that virtually all of them did it to the maximum degree, even when the actors were writhing and clawing the walls selling agony. The people didn’t want to deliver the punishments, but that’s what they were instructed to do, and that’s what they did. Here are the lyrics, and if you consider and apply them to Elizabeth’s situation and the Russian problem as a whole as there appears to be a schism of sorts occurring within the leadership organizations of the country, this is a perfect choice of song.

we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
told to do
we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
we do what we’re told
told to do
one doubt
one voice
one war
one truth
one dream

Elizabeth doesn’t seem particularly pleased with what she’s being asked to accomplish in this sequence, which includes keeping everything from Philip and also from Claudia and the Centre. She’s on her own, and she knows there’s a risk of being caught on the wrong side by her usual allies here. She also may be conflicted about the realities of what could come from the Summit, though she continually mentions not believing the Americans and feeling the negotiations are an unfair ploy to get the Soviets to give up their programs while still building their own in the States.

But, she says it enough times that it’s at least conceivable she’s actually starting to have to recite it to herself in order to actually believe her own propaganda. She’s usually a true believer, so it’s too early to speculate.

Later, we see her on duty spying on Glenn Haskard, and “Listening Wind” from Talking Heads plays over the scene. That song, incredibly controversial, was the story of Mojique, a foreign terrorist, who executes a bombing operation to kill Americans, deemed colonialists. David Byrne has stated in recent years he probably couldn’t get away with playing it live anymore, but he’s well aware of why much of the world hates the United States, and believes Americans are oblivious to their arrogance and issues. Here’s a portion of the lyrics:

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He dreams of days that he can still remember…now

Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more

While she’s going through hell, playing nurse to stay close to a mark, and while her only daughter is engaging in political arguments and seemingly turning against everything in her life outside of her choice to become a Russian spy, Philip is smiling and line dancing with his co-workers, semi-flirting with a mom at the hockey game, and successfully managing the expanded agency. Similarly, we see Stan Beeman just for a minute at the dinner party, but he’s laughing as he engages with Paige’s debate and hosts along with Renee. Dennis Aderholt and his lady deal with their infant child, but they’re also enjoying themselves. Everyone is, except those caught in the spy game.

Recently, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields stated The Americans is an intentionally and extremely political show, but not one that approaches anything in an expected context. The former worked for the CIA, and the show hasn’t shied away from issues, but at the same time it’s never preached one thing or another. Everyone involved has made mistakes, but it’s been difficult to at any point sympathize with the Russians as a group.

That said, it’s been tough not to root for Philip and Elizabeth, Oleg, even Arkady at times, because each has been shown to be a uniquely human individual, not to mention morally and emotionally conflicted. Somehow, we can relate to the Communists just as we can Beeman and Aderholt, and past the politics of the show, there’s the inherent shades of grey that define its participants’ collective humanity.

Although Philip did exit his former life, agreeing with his wife’s summation of events at the end of Season 5, how can one ever truly leave that existence? It’s why he meets with Burov after seeing the mark on the mailbox, and why he slips back into that disguise the way we would hop on a bike for the first time in three years and still know how it works. He’s back in, and what a brilliant twist in storytelling we get as Oleg asks him to spy on, of all people, ELIZABETH, and if necessary, stop her if she’s in the way of progress and part of the anti-Gorbachev group, something we already know is either the case or at least where she’s tasked to exist.

Now that’s great writing. Philip has to covertly watch his wife, where the relationship is already openly strained and barely hanging on, and he’s been told he might have to kill her if she’s on the wrong side. Not one viewer could fail to understand just how big this is, and Philip immediately reveals to us what he was planning to do. He wanted to tell Elizabeth when she got home, but she cuts him off and curtly tells him, “Let me sleep.” She will talk to him in the morning, but that opportunity probably won’t come.

He’s worried about her, telling her she’s physically falling apart, smoking like a chimney, and seems out of sorts. It’s getting to her, he says, and she deflects it away. She reacts negatively and goes upstairs, but then we see her in that bathroom. She grasps the necklace containing the suicide pill, recalling being told in Mexico City that she knows of Dead Hand, and “cannot be arrested.” As she stares into the mirror, her makeup caked awkwardly, looking dissheveled, disoriented, and with her eyes drooping, Elizabeth Jennings doesn’t look human anymore.

She looks like a monster, but not one we should fear. She looks like a monster she should fear. She looks like a zombie, as if she’s dead but still somehow standing. Philip was right, she knows it (and knew it as he said it), and she also realizes she’s been ordered to kill herself rather than be captured. Philip sees a growing rift in his marriage, which is amplified a bit earlier when he leaves work early and we hear “Gold Dust Woman” from Fleetwood Mac. The music choices in “Dead Hand” were absurdly awesome. That’s not new for The Americans, but this might have been the best mix to date.

Elizabeth’s risks are obvious. Her husband’s are as well, because if she finds out, he’ll be the next one to take a knife to the neck, as much as she cares for him. Oleg’s risks could be never seeing his wife or son again, or potentially being shot if he’s caught and sent back to Russia. Paige was almost made and is still learning how to operate within her new life, but doing so at the most inopportune of times. Renee talks to Aderholt’s wife and seems miffed she’s been kept out of the loop by Stan, which we see simply to remind us she may be a Russian operative. With the exception of Henry, who seems to be doing well, everybody is in a precarious state as the final season opener concludes.

The acting here was outstanding, but I’m not even going to say much about it yet, because I’ve already done it so often. Rhys and Russell are two of the best on TV this century, and Costa Ronin is a revelation as Oleg Burov. Noah Emmerich is always great, Holly Taylor continues to improve, Margo Martindale is as consistent as they come, and so on and so forth. It’s expected that the performances are largely going to be pitch perfect, and yes, they were through the entire hour yet again.

Everybody is in danger, or soon to be in danger. Just as it should be. There’s no time to mess around anymore. No more filler content is required, and here come Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to give us everything they’ve got left in the tank in order to finish their epic story. They said as much last summer in Austin at the ATX Festival, and if the premiere is any indication, we’re in for something truly special, but also emotionally gut wrenching. This is what we’ve been waiting for, and the first chapter of this final book was terrific and menacing all in one.

This is going to be fun…in the most terrible and satisfying of ways. Here we go. Buckle up. But probably keep the sun roof closed, Philip.

I’m @JMartOutkick. I really loved Nerds II as a kid. Watch out for that pothole.

Written by Jason Martin